In a recent study by PwC, it estimated that around 30% of the UK workforce could be replaced by machines. Transport, manufacturing, retail and admin are the areas most at risk, but the ramifications are sure to affect all of us.
You may think this figure seems a little unrealistic, but for some, the prospect of automation is already more than evident.
On your next trip into town, you might bump into a humanoid robot, known as Pepper. Standing at almost four feet tall, it greets customers as they pass, answers questions and provides directions. It uses sensors to monitor its surroundings and can make entirely autonomous decisions.
If you do stumble across one, make sure you smile, as it reads your facial expressions to gauge your mood and adjusts its responses accordingly.
Driverless taxis are being trialled in the US and Singapore with Uber, Waymo (Google) and Nutonomy among the forerunners. Aside from a huge set of sensors strapped to the roof, a self-driving cab feels much like sitting in an ordinary vehicle.
From your spot in the back seat, you can check various information on a tablet, including the car’s speed, the route and a view of the road. While in the front, where the cup holder usually is, a large red button switches the car into manual mode, for when things get a bit hairy. Although at present, every self-driving taxi includes an engineer who takes control from time to time.
Hermes recently began collecting parcels in Southwark using a fleet of delivery robots, which follows a successful trial by Just Eat last year. With Amazon still exploring the options by air, traditional deliveries look set to change sooner rather than later.
But perhaps the most intriguing technology is a robot dog, affectionately know as Spot, which is delivering parcels in Boston, USA. Google-owned, robotics company Boston Dynamics, is currently testing the four-legged robodog which can jump, climb stairs and get back up when it falls over.
Sensors on its head help it to navigate across difficult terrain and it can safely run alongside its human owner. At 11 stone, you certainly wouldn’t want it running into you.
In Australia, a fruit harvesting robot draws upon the latest advances in AI vision to identify when an apple is ripe and then uses a sucker to gently pick it. It’s been notoriously hard for a machine to harvest ripe fruit without ruining it, so this marks quite a step forward for farming.
The thought of an automated Terminator-style robot making life and death decisions is a terrifying one. Some argue that replacing our armed forces with machines is more humane than sending actual humans onto the battlefield, but the issue is fraught with moral dilemmas.
Either way, it’s happening – in the US and Russia, military robots are being trialled. The Russian version, FEDOR, stands six feet high and weighs up to 25 stone. It’s currently learning how to drive a car, use a set of keys and screw in a lightbulb.
Over 800’000 people worldwide use the Babylon Health app to get advice and support. In the UK, you can use it to book a video or audio appointment with a GP and receive prescriptions directly to your nearest pharmacy.
The next step for Babylon Health is to develop an AI doctor that can diagnose illnesses more accurately than a human. The only question is whether you’d actually want it to break potentially life-changing news to a vulnerable person.
Paris-based Flow Machines is developing a program that can create an entire pop album. Its AI finds patterns within over 15’000 tracks and then pulls together various chord progressions and suggested rhythms.
Although whether a machine can ever appeal at a creative level is a subject of much debate. It’s more likely that AI will augment our own creativity, rather than replace it entirely. Let’s not forget that synthesisers still haven’t replaced the piano.
Shaping our public services
There are growing anxieties within the public sector about job losses resulting from automation. A report by think tank, Reform, stated that around 250’000 workers could be replaced by machines.
The impact of AI on public services needs careful consideration and it worries me that changes might be seen as a way to force through financial cutbacks. There are still so many cultural issues to resolve prior to implementing any significant technology.
For example, agencies are still working in silos and neglecting to share information. This attitude can have dire consequences, such as overlooking the root cause of child’s mental illness. Or failing to spot the signs of addiction for a rough sleeper.
So before anyone gets carried away, let’s fix some of the problems we’re facing daily before we add another layer of complexity on top of an already struggling system.
Gary Pettengell, Chief Executive of not for profit technology provider Empowering-Communities